Museums put pizazz in the past

Outreach: Who knew history could be this much fun? Historians did, and now they're humanizing all those stories for the rest of us.

October 01, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Dennis Fiori isn't acting like the head of the Maryland Historical Society. He's mugging for the camera with Denise Whiting and Stella Gambino, a couple of faux Baltimore Hons whose towering beehive hairdos make them look like they just stepped out of a John Waters movie.

"This might be entertainment, I don't know," says Sandra Sageser Clark, director of the Michigan Historical Center.

She's not only joking about Fiori's moment in front of the camera, but also referring to an earlier serious conversation about where history museums and history associations stand today.

"It makes us nervous to say we're in the entertainment business," she says. "But in effect we are competing against the entertainment market for entertainment dollars. We do want people to say, `I had a good time.' "

It used to be that history presentations could get away with being as static as statues. They were interesting, often beautiful, yet disconnected from the present. No more. This week more than 1,300 people are meeting at the Omni hotel to swap ideas on how to make history come alive and discuss topics ranging from the portrayal of slavery at Colonial Williamsburg to the protection of Native American heritage.

The historians and curators know it is no longer enough for a museum to be a repository for interesting artifacts. Museums and historical societies are reaching out to become part of their communities. In Greenfield Village, Mich., a local high school has been incorporated into the Henry Ford Museum. The Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y., has a public library.

"Museums used to say, `Here's our collection. Now, come see it,' " says Clark, who is in town for the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting. "Now, it's a much more collaborative effort."

Everyone is involved in history, not just the big names in books. Those hons clowning with Fiori represent a stylized send-up of the friendly waitresses who worked Baltimore's cafes and diners. When association members took a bus drive through town, their driver pointed out Edgar Allan Poe's grave. He too was taking a role in the history of his town.

That's a big change from a generation ago. The Maryland Historical Society used to be thought of purely as a place where blue-haired ladies talked about family heirlooms and argued over who came over on the Ark and the Dove. Now the society has Nipper proudly perched on its annex on Cathedral Street.

The "Mining the Museum" exhibit of a few years ago was one example of the historical society's changing perspective.

"Fred Wilson [the exhibit's curator] really taught us about looking at objects," says Fiori.

Another watershed event was Ken Burns' monumental PBS documentary "The Civil War." He pulled together all those static elements: photographs, battlefields, diaries and made the story live. People responded as if they had never heard of that time in American history. Those in the history field took notice.

"Ken Burns proved that Americans care about their history," says Clark, who is president of the association. "It was a wake-up call."

The key, says Fiori, was that Burns brought an epic story down to a human, personal level. Using the diaries of common soldiers, lawyers and wives gave the story a depth and resonance that might have been lost had Burns only used the great generals and politicians of that time.

"He didn't invent it, but he reminded us of how effective it can be," says Clark. "Ken Burns took stuff that we all have sitting in our archives and showed us its impact."

In many ways this idea of personalizing history and bringing in human stories can help people tap into their communities.

"You need to belong," says Terry Davis, the association's executive director. "How do you become a member of a community and really belong? One way is to know the history."

Pub Date: 10/01/99

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